A Perfect Storm
Bill Jackson had to make a tough decision: stick by his client or stick up for his bankbook
Published in 2005 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on June 21, 2005
Updated on February 28, 2017
Bill Jackson speaks with the calm drawl of a native Houstonian, but something happened in the summer of 2001 that challenged even his unflappable nature. Jackson had just filed the biggest case of his career, representing the Port of Houston against a neighboring pesticide plant that had contaminated soil and groundwater with DDT and other chemicals. Soon afterward, his firm, Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, announced its merger with the law firm that was on the defendants’ side of the Port case.
Jackson faced a huge dilemma: Did he take the good job offered at the newly merged firm, which meant giving up the Port case and leaving his clients in the lurch? Or did he stand by his client and pass by a big-money, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity? After discussing the options with other attorneys on the Port team, all of whom were facing the same difficult decision, he realized there was another possibility. Maybe now was the time to start his own firm.
Complicating the decision, he had a pregnant wife, an 18-month-old daughter and, in the aftermath of one of the largest storms in Houston history, was without a home, car or office.
It was, as Jackson puts it in his understated way, “a tough decision” and a “memorable period.”
The seeds of the Port case go back at least 30 years, but the most logical starting point is 1998. That year, GB Biosciences, which operated the pesticide plant, approached the Port about buying some nearby land. The Port discovered that a Harris County flood control ditch and a section of Greens Bayou, which runs by the Port, were contaminated with the pesticides DDT and lindane, which the plant had manufactured decades before.
At the time, Jackson was a young lawyer who was already building an impressive résumé for environmental cases. A few years before, he represented the Port of Texas City against six separate pipeline operators for groundwater and soil contamination of Port property. Through six individual confidential settlements, the Port of Texas City received a multimillion-dollar recovery that funded all site remediation efforts, recouped all of its costs and damages, and funded an environmental remediation trust to cover future expenses.
Jackson seemed a natural choice for the complicated Port of Houston case. On top of the complex environmental issues, the plant had a dizzying array of former owners — at various times, American, Swiss, British and Japanese conglomerates had all owned the plant. A large number of firms assembled to represent the various former owners, who spent a lot of time arguing about who was responsible for the decades-old contamination.
“This case was incredibly complicated,” Jackson says. “The science was very difficult, and just getting our hands around the scope of the problem was a challenge.
“DDT doesn’t have much of an impact on the fish, because the chemical stays in their fat cells,” he says. “But when the birds eat the fish, it prevents reproduction. Basically, the resulting egg shells are too thin, and they crack when the birds sit on them.”
Worst Time for Everyone
After two years of trying to resolve the issue without litigation, the participants couldn’t agree on a settlement and the case was filed in February 2001. Not long afterward, the merger negotiations began, forcing Jackson and the other lawyers to decide if they should stay or go. Debra Baker, another lawyer on the Port team, says the decision came at the worst time for everyone involved. “I have three children, and my mother was terminally ill,” she says. “It didn’t make sense to take on something this risky, and we agonized over it.”
This was particularly true because the decision coincided with the arrival of Tropical Storm Allison, which that June dumped 36 inches of rain on parts of the city, killed 22 people and caused $5 billion in damages.
Returning from a trip with his family to Florida, Jackson flew back into the storm’s path, and on the drive home from the airport, they were forced to spend the night in his car on the 610 Loop because of flooding.
The basement of Jackson’s law firm was flooded as well. As a result of the damage, Jackson and the other lawyers scrambled to find places to work on the huge case. The lawyers would load their files into their cars and then meet for lunch, asking each other what they were going to do about the merger. “We didn’t see how we could drop the case halfway through,” Baker says. “It just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.”
The Port team decided to start its own firm — Connelly Baker Wotring Jackson. It was a difficult time for Jackson. His car had been flooded in Allison, and in the aftermath of the storm, water damage to his home forced him to move out for six months. If dealing with that was not enough, he was put in charge of finding the offices, software systems, copiers and databases for the new firm. “Anytime I looked at a place that had extra office space, I wondered if it would be an appropriate place to put my wife and daughter,” he says. He was also charged with researching the health insurance, 401(k) and profit-sharing plans.
The firm opened officially on October 1 with six partners and no associates. Baker recalls, “We would turn to each other and say, ‘What if this doesn’t work?’ Someone would always say, ‘Then we go with Plan B.’ It wasn’t until much later that we realized that there wasn’t a Plan B.”
Brilliant Technical Expertise
The massive Port case moved steadily ahead. The case involved more than 60 depositions and 1 million pages of documents. It required more than 15 mediation sessions.
The participants were impressed by Jackson’s legal skills. Diana E. Marshall served as the mediator for the case from April to October, during which time she had close to full-time contact with the lawyers. “Bill was absolutely brilliant,” she says. “His technical expertise and presentation skills were nothing short of perfection.”
But what really impressed Marshall was the young attorney’s integrity. “In this situation, Bill met with more than 20 years of pent-up frustrations, claims of broken promises, repeated failed solutions and a mountain of distrust between the major parties,” she says. In such situations, she notes, many mature lawyers launch into personal attacks that provide a short-term gratification for their clients, but damage their ability to effectively handle the case.
“Bill will find the positive ground, inspire others to rise to their potential and work to avoid a retaliatory diversion even when it is most tempting,” she continues. “Most of the lawyers of my generation lament the loss of honesty, decency and humanity among young lawyers. But people like Bill Jackson protect the profession from becoming the lowest, meanest common denominator.”
Jackson even earned the respect of the opposing counsels. Jeffrey S. Wolff, an attorney with Fulbright & Jaworski, represented several of the defendants in the Port case, including the current plant owner. “When Bill gave his word about a matter in the case, I knew I could rely on it,” he says.
In December 2003, the Port reached a $100 million settlement with GB Biosciences, its parent companies and 11 firms associated with the plant. As part of the settlement, the defendants will purchase more than 100 affected acres from the port, and 500,000 cubic yards of sediment will be removed from Greens Bayou. The cleanup will take five to seven years to complete. The National Law Journal named this one of the 10 most significant settlements in Texas for 2003.
Jackson is proud of all that, but in his typical low-key manner he says the dramatic beginnings of his law firm isn’t the compelling part of the story. After all, he’s the kind of litigator who is drawn to the intellectual rather than theatrical aspects of his calling. “I’m not in it for the show,” he says.
And so tales about tropical storms or ethical dilemmas have to be dragged out of him. The real story, he says, is the work the firm is now doing. In the past four years, Connelly Baker has grown into a midsize boutique firm with 45 lawyers. He talks eagerly about the firm’s work in the hot arena of natural resources damage litigation. He serves as a director of Justice for Children, a national child advocacy organization. His spare time is spent with his wife, 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “They have made me strive for more balance in my life,” he says. Which makes sense. Because after a summer like the one of 2001, a person learns to appreciate the present, because he knows the future is never certain.